WEIRTON Members of the Weirton Transit Corp. Board of Trustees aired some grievances about budget constraints and problems related to staffing issues and route deviations at their regular meeting Wednesday.
Transit Manager Kevin Beynon reported that April's ridership was up from last year by 722 passengers, meaning a total of 5,569 passengers rode the WTC buses throughout the month. This increase marks a definite trend toward increased ridership overall in 2014, he said. February was up by 558 passengers, and March was up by 969 compared to 2013. May is already up by more than 500 passengers with about a week remaining.
"The numbers have just gone through the roof. It has just really taken off, and it has created a bit of a problem," Beynon said. "The last six months of last year we were up 2,270 people, and for what May is looking like already, we are going to be up by 3,000 people for the first five months of this year. We're looking at close to 58,000 for the entire year, and not too many years ago we were transporting 20,000 people. The problem is what it's doing to our schedule and how difficult it is to keep up with everything."
BOARD?GATHERS — The Weirton Transit Corp. Board of Trustees held their regular meeting Wednesday and discussed frustrations with funding, as well as route deviations and personnel vacancies.-- Shae Dalrymple
The WTC is still seeking a certified driver to fill a vacant position as soon as possible, something Beynon said has proven to be difficult because of competition from the region's natural gas boom. Employees who would normally work from the office have been working overtime in the field driving to make up for the vacancy.
"I've had talks with city officials about how hard it is to keep experienced drivers on their fleets, and everyone in the area is expressing a similar problem with their driving forces. Drivers are being offered $17 an hour with oil and gas companies. The city pays $15.50, so if they are having problems, imagine how hard it is for us to find someone who will start out at $10 an hour and stay. It's phenomenal that we have drivers who have been here two to four years and stayed with us. They could leave and make higher wages, but they stay because they are dedicated to our customers and they're aware of the problems we have in this town," Beynon said. "But trying to get new drivers who are caring and dedicated is extremely difficult. And now that we're hauling 58,000 people with the same number of buses, same number of drivers that we used to haul 27,000 people with before, the weight of it falls on those drivers."
WTC board member Walter Angelini described the situation with drivers' wages as "pitiful." He asked how much other transit companies in West Virginia pay, and Beynon answered that it ranges between $12 to $19 per hour.
"It's a shame, because we do get 50/50 funding for that," Angelini said, meaning that any local funding is matched by federal funding. "So only $3,000 could up their pay by a dollar, and $9,000 would up their pay by $3 an hour. Their standards of living would increase. Our overall economic health in the city would increase because they'd be spending more money here. Here we only have to come up with 50 percent, and the feds would supply the rest. It seems ridiculous that the argument can't be made for increasing their wages along the way."
Beynon expressed frustration regarding communication with city officials about funding.
"I know right now the city is having trouble, but before the city was in this position with the budget, we still kept falling on deaf ears," Beynon said. "Every time we talk about money for this transit, we hear about raising fees. We are by far the highest charging transit system in the state of West Virginia at $2 per ride. When I talk to City Council, every time I ask for additional funds they say 'Are you going to raise your rates?' Hardly any transit system in the country charges as much as we do, and you want me to raise rates here? That is not what public transit is. We have a problem getting people to understand what 'public transit' means. Ideally you would have free public transit or, like Steubenville, charge 50 cents a ride and $30 for yearly passes instead of $40 a month here. It's hard to explain that to people when they come over here from the other side of the river. We told City Council how much trouble we would have without more funding, and it's happening now."
Board member Amos Gregory agreed.
"Nobody here in Weirton supports the transit unless they ride the bus. The city officials, the businesses don't support this transit. The last two mayors have not supported this transit. What business supports it? No one is supporting something that is regularly meeting the needs of more than 47,000 people. The only ones that support it are the people riding, and they are the least able to support it," Gregory commented. "We need more citizen involvement to put that pressure back on city officials."
The cost of maintenance and equipment has steadily increased since the transit system was organized, and ridership has seen increases as well, board members explained, but the city's contribution to the WTC has remained the same.
"It's hard to believe that when we first started, the city contributed $50,000, and they are still contributing $50,000. In 20-some years you'd think that there would be some increase," Angelini noted.
Beynon pointed out that the city's "in-kind" contributions have increased though. He said that the WTC has been waiting for City Council to generate a solution to the city's budget concerns before they can move forward.
"We can't move on our five-year plan. We can't move on our public hearings that we need to have to explain to our customers what we're going to do with deviations. We're sitting here stuck because we need to have public hearings for two different reasons, and we can't move until the city has a budget. We don't know what money we will be getting from the city, and we don't know what money we will get from the Brooke County Commission. Hancock County Commission has said they are giving us the same $15,000 as they did last year, but Brooke County has not made a determination yet," Beynon explained.
A citywide levy might be an option for the WTC in the future.
"It's something we need to begin to have talks with the city about. It's an avenue worth exploring," Beynon said.
Route deviations have become a "major problem" causing scheduling conflicts. Some of the options to cut down on time consuming deviations include limiting deviations to one per route on a first-come, first-served basis or charging extra fares for each deviation from the primary route. Board members intend to hold a public hearing to explain policy changes once they come to a resolution regarding the deviation issue.
In other business, the WTC recently used a $4,000 state grant to purchase three new computers, four office chairs, one mobile and one portable radio, a dollar counter, microphones from Lauttamus Communications and logo T-shirts for employees. A new bus has been ordered, which also is being paid for by state funds.
"This money we've received from them is not a normal thing," Beynon noted. "The state realizes the situation that we're in financially with what goes on up here in this area. They have really gone above and beyond, so we're grateful for that."